A new study promises proof of what some on the left have long believed: Americans who support foreign wars do so because they are racists.
"Racial bias makes white Americans more likely to support wars in nonwhite foreign countries," reads the headline of a recent article by University of Delaware professors David Ebner and Vladimir Medenica in the Conversation, an academic-popularization blog. Their study, they claim, shows that "White Americans who hold racist beliefs" are more likely to support military tactics over "diplomacy or economic strategies" against countries whose residents are not white, particularly China, because their "images" of other nations are determined by their racial biases.
If that’s true, the study does not prove it. Instead, it relies on a flaky and questionable measure of "racism" for its central finding, one that could just as easily show that belief in personal responsibility predicts suspicion of hostile foreign powers.
To conduct their study, Ebner and Medenica relied on data from the American National Election Studies, a widely used survey of voters stretching back to 1948. They look at white respondents’ answers to questions about the threat posed by Iran, China, and global terrorism, and how each is predicted by a measure of their "racial resentment." That’s estimated with a standard battery of questions meant to capture respondents’ "implicit" or "symbolic" racist attitudes, rather than explicitly asking them about racist beliefs they might hold.
As reported, Ebner and Medenica find strong relationships between these variables. Higher "racial resentment" is strongly predictive of support for bombing Iran, for believing that China poses a military or economic threat to the United States, and support for using torture against suspected terrorists. Surprisingly, they also find that racial resentment is strongly predictive of believing in isolationism—"the belief that the U.S. would be better off if it kept itself out of global affairs"—which the authors argue reconciles with their thesis because it reflects a rejection of internationalism. In addition, racial resentment does not predict wanting to put "boots on the ground" to fight ISIS—the authors leave these apparent contradictions largely unexplored.
To reach these findings, the authors use a statistical tool called regression analysis, which models the relationships between two variables and allows estimation of how a change in one affects a change in another. Such analyses are commonplace in social science literature but have distinct limitations for inferring causality—it is entirely possible, for example, that some unmeasured third variable causes people to both support foreign intervention and score highly on the racial resentment scale, without the latter causing the former. The authors include a host of "control" variables to account for this, but they are necessarily limited by the available data, not fully obviating this concern.
There’s a second, bigger problem, though, with the claim that racism drives America’s foreign policy: The battery that Ebner and Medenica use does not necessarily measure racism at all.
The racial resentment scale was created for the American National Election Studies in the 1980s. It consists of four statements to which respondents offer their agreement or disagreement:
· Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors
· Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
· Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
· It's really a matter of some people just not trying hard enough: if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.
Agreement with the first and fourth statements and disagreement with the second and third statements is interpreted to indicate racial resentment/racism.
But the racial resentment scale is controversial, and not without reason—the questions just as readily measure a belief in the importance of individual initiative as they do racial bias. Indeed, research has shown that racial resentment does not predict discriminatory behavior in lab studies, and that respondents show equal levels of "racial resentment" when asked the same questions about, e.g., Lithuanians.
Research also indicates that racial resentment more consistently predicts support for a hypothetical political candidate than opposition. Many black respondents in the American National Election Studies also score as "racist" toward blacks, and overt racial prejudice is correlated to racial resentment for white liberals but not white conservatives.
In short: The main variable Ebner and Medenica use to measure "racism" does not by any means actually measure racism. Their results could just as easily mean that a belief in individual over systemic explanations for outcomes predicts concerns about foreign threats to the United States.
As with other uses of the racial resentment scale, Ebner and Medenica’s study offers more political heat than informative light. Though opponents of intervention will doubtless misuse it, everyday citizens should make no mistake: It gives us little new reason to think American foreign policy is driven by racial animus, rather than strategic concerns.